Director Alan Bruun and the Mad Cow Theatre Co. have tackled Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with all the gusto and passion of a high-school wrestling team frantically playing against the clock in the final match of its season. On Mad Cow's small, unadorned Stage Left playing turf, 17 actors love, fight and soliloquize with all the exploding vibrancy of hotheaded youth caught up in a violent jumble of desires and ill-considered choices.

Yet while the energy of the proceedings is undeniable, it also exacts a price – just as the play's star-crossed protagonists must pay a price when they act without patience or consideration. For the Cows, that price is sacrificing the emotional impact the tale should have on the members of its audience, who here witness a swirling array of activity, feelings and words without ever being provoked into sympathy for the play's unhappy lovers.

It's a shame, because Bruun's workmanlike approach to the text, and the excellent efforts of many in the cast, should have added up to more than a speedway race whose inevitable crashes are seen only at the emotional distance of a spectator watching from home. True, the events of the play do tread upon one another's heels with dispatch. But the action onstage often moves so quickly that the characters' predicaments never have time to linger in the center of our "fear and pity" – those emotions that classic tragedy is supposed to arouse in its viewers.

The main pleasure in watching Mad Cow's Romeo and Juliet comes from enjoying the well-crafted performances of several of its veteran players (and, in at least in one case, the arrival of a talented newcomer). In the potentially thankless role of Juliet's loquacious and down-to-earth nurse, Darlin Barry delivers just the right mix of foolishness, wisdom and lusty bawdiness. And Jay T. Becker provides a magical impersonation of Mercutio: His punk hairdo, swaggering sexuality and bipolar mien lift the character into heretofore unthought-of realms of weirdness without sacrificing the role's humanity or comprehensibility. Becker's rendition of the famous "Queen Mab" speech is a gem of spellbinding theatricality.

Rick Stanley plumbs Lord Capulet's patrician but nonetheless violent underside. Watching him slap around his nephew Tybalt (Beaureguarde Hoffman) or throw daughter Juliet out of the house for disobedience, one can understand why the blood feud between him and the Montagues is not an abnormal family tradition. Christopher Lee Gibson manages to humanize the character of Friar Laurence while also bringing his reasoned arguments to the forefront. Gibson's full-blooded characterization provides a perfect counterpoint to Romeo's unbridled and passionate behavior.

Yes, but what of the young lovers? High school junior Marnee McClellen is more successful than her counterpart, Scott Hodges, in conveying the thoughts and feelings of a teenager in the throes of newfound desire. Where Hodges seems to push for emotion as Romeo – his voice is often too loud, a trait that makes him sound angry rather than lovesick – McClellen hits just the right pitch. Her intelligent line readings, working in tandem with her physical grace and beauty, create the perfect illusion of a young girl whose adolescent crush matures into selfless love and then morphs into suicidal frenzy.

It's good to see Shakespeare performed with such intelligence and craft. But the challenge for Mad Cow is to put those credentials in service to the play's emotive agenda. Its Romeo and Juliet is successful more for the spirited interpretation of its many parts than for any emotional wallop provided by the larger whole.


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